Tag Archives: Blogging

Blogs, blogging, bloggers, the blogosphere, all that stuff

intimidating but also intimate / reflections on formative time in a revenant medium

Metablogging is the most (self-)indulgent form of blogging—a bit of (self-demonstrating/self-performing) wisdom that was already a well-worn cliche when Technorati was still a thing that people cared about. But we are products of our milieu, are we not?

Adam Kotsko would agree, I think—and this reflective bit of his from earlier this week flipped me into a similarly reflective mode at this inevitably reflective time of year. Responding to WordPress’s recent hard push on the new post-composition UI, and his instinctive annoyance at a change he feels he neither wants nor needs, Kotsko wonders:

Why can’t I just move on? Why this attachment to an outdated publication model, such that a website redesign can quite sincerely ruin my afternoon? It’s because blogging isn’t just another tool to me. It was my way out. It allowed me to build up a social network and a reputation that I never could have achieved otherwise. I realize that a big part of this was the dumb luck of getting into blogging just slightly before it hit the bigtime, but it also reflects a lot of hard work and energy on my part…

I read that and got an instant hit of recognition. Our journeys have been pretty different, and we started at slightly different times and from very different places, but there’s nonetheless a good chunk of commonality in our experience based on our both having dived into the cresting wave of bloggage back when it felt like something that might take us somewhere. (Indeed, I recall being both admirous of and intimidated by Kotsko back in the day, because it felt like he was laying track way better than I was, and his rhetorical chops, then as now, were way out in front of my own.)

In both cases, blogging did take us somewhere—though in neither case did that happen in quite the way we initially thought it would:

For the better part of the 2000s, blogging was my life, and it has turned out to be the condition of possibility and condition of impossibility for the life that followed. People sometimes wonder how I am able to write so much, and the answer is basically that I have written a substantial amount every single day since I was in junior high. First it was comic books, then in high school I switched to journaling, and then in college I switched to writing for a personal website and subsequently blogs. It was the blog, though, that really shifted me into high gear because I knew each time that I was writing for a critical audience, who could respond to me immediately if they so chose. It was intimidating but also intimate — falsely so, in many ways, as I often found that unsympathetic readers found their way to my stuff without making themselves known, including influential people who based their conception of me on the tone of what amounted to a pub conversation among friends.

Back when I was still running Futurismic (and—largely unknowingly, due to my considerable political naivete at the time—turning it from an aspirant but very much second-tier libertarian-tech-and-sci-fi webzine to an enduringly second-tier but left-leaning contra-Panglossian critical-futures-and-sci-fi webzine) I spent maybe three or four hours reading RSS feeds and cranking out two or three posts every day, six days a week. During the period of my doing so, I made a total US$ sum of ad revenue in the mid-three-figure range, and I had to fight like hell—and engage in some minor attempts at public shaming—to actually get the cheque out of the cowboy operator who owed it me. All that work was effectively subsidized by the little bits of freelance writing and web development work that I managed to scrape up along the way. But I accepted that, because I saw it as my chance to do my apprenticeship in public and without a mentor or entry-level break, neither of which were forthcoming. I did my ten thousand hours as a writer—in fact, I probably did closer to twice that many. I learned to write in public.

As such, I also learned to argue in public, and in so doing I learned a style that has been both an advantage and a disadvantage in my subsequent academic career. (By way of example: my oft-lamented doctoral thesis, I realise with hindsight, might have had a much easier ride if I didn’t write and think like a blogger.) But at the same time, I wouldn’t have pushed into the thought-spaces that I pushed into if I hadn’t learned that novelty is what gets you noticed… and it was that knack for novelty, acquired in the trenches of the blogwars, that got me my make-or-break RA gig around the same time I started my Masters. I wrote myself into existence, in a way… flaws and all.

Well, selah. Much as Kotsko notes of his own dynamic, in a post from earlier in the year, I was a twenty-something blogbro with a selection of chips on my shoulder in a period when blogbro-dom was rewarded in ways that probably weren’t great for my character in the long run. And, y’know, hey: twenty-somethings gonna twenty-something, amirite? Though I was still twenty-somethinging well into my thirties, which is rather less forgivable. I had learned to play a small set of abrasive riffs particularly well, and—much as in my actual guitar-playing, such as it is—relied on them far too heavily for far too long. I have some explanations for that, though not really any excuses. I like to think I’ve become a broader writer/thinker over the last decade, but the curve took a long while to start climbing, and there’s a lot of work still to do. Kotsko again:

I wound up burning bridges, probably too many, by putting myself out there so aggressively when still had so much growing up to do. I only learned about the job at Shimer College because of my blogging, but I have also probably missed out on a lot of opportunities due to the reputation for brashness that my blogging won me. Sometimes I have even suspected that the very fact that I built up a reputation as a thinker and writer on my own, outside of “proper channels,” has hurt my academic career, even aside from the content of what I was writing. But there are a lot of people who went through “proper channels” and have nothing to show for it. In a world with no guarantees — which my exposure to contingent faculty through blogging showed me I was entering into — the only “strategy” is to do what you really want, while you have the chance to do so. I haven’t exactly been “rewarded” for that strategy, but I have kept on living to fight another day — most often neither despite or because of it, but through sheer good fortune.

As I suggest above, and in a similar manner to Kotsko, my own shaping-by-blogging is likewise something of a disadvantage to me, academically… but at the same time, if it wasn’t for that self-shaping experience, then I wouldn’t have an academic career for it to compromise, or the skills to bluff through and fake it until I (hopefully) make it.

All of which is to say: I too am attached to blogging as a medium in a manner that I can rationalise until the cows come home, but which perhaps ultimately boils down to it having been the context of my life and aspirations at a formative and fortunately-timed moment of half-accidental career development. I too resent the banalisation of socnet discourse, because I (probably very mistakenly) hark back to an idealised golden era in which our heated arguments took days and thousands of words to play out rather than hours and dozens. I can’t let it go any more than I can let go my affection for miserabilist grunge-rock. I’ve learned to love newer things since, and I don’t listen to it so much as I used to (if you’ll excuse the over-extension of the metaphor), but it’s still the foundation of everything that I’ve done since. How could it be any other way? The self, assuming there is such a thing, is emergent; the starting parameters inevitably remain implicit in the latest iterations. And with the self-system as with the contextual metasystem: the way out is through, and also endless—a utopian direction of travel rather than a destination that can ever be reached.

But enough navel-gazing. People have been saying that blogging is making a comeback since long before it had even fully faded away, so I’m retaining a healthy (and somewhat prophylactic) scepticism about the most recent resurfacing of that particular signal—“we won’t get fooled again”, as the song goes. But maybe the hellscape of the year that has been 2020 will provide the momentum that’s needed for that dialectic to spin around once more; if you want yer signs and portents, then they’re out there.

(Perhaps the strongest of those was summed up very accurately by a recent backchannel message from Jay Springett, who was pointing out a sudden fashion among newsletter-writers for building taxonomy pages linking out to their archives… but then again, I know my Douglas Adams, and thus have some well-founded opinions about the propensity for people to attempt to reinvent the wheel, and to get stuck on entirely the wrong aspects of the problem. Well, I guess we’ll see.)

One way or another, much like Kotsko, I think—and indeed hope—I’ll keep blogging, even if I don’t have the time or mental stamina to do it as much as I once did. There’s only so much composition bandwidth the ol’ brainmeat can muster in a single day, and academia is—thankfully, and happily—taking up the majority of that right now, and for the foreseeable.

If blogging ever does make its comeback, it will of course never be “blogging” as we experienced it Back In The Day. I guess I have sufficient wisdom to recognise that to be as good a thing as it is an inevitable thing—even as I have sufficient nostalgia for a formative and desperate time of my life to wish, just a little bit, that we could go back to what now seems like a more innocent and antediluvian culture.

World keeps spinnin’, don’t it? That’s our curse, as a species, but it’s also our blessing.

Happy new year.

dead media beat

Thanks to Jay Springett and Uncle Warren for alerting me to the sunsetting of Bruce Sterling’s old Beyond the Beyond blog at Wired, which I only stopped following because Wired yanked the RSS on it some time ago—this despite its being perhaps the most influential thing they ever published, or ever will publish. Jay’s accompanying note said “end of an era”, and I appreciate the sentiment, though it’s not quite true: that era ended a long time ago (probably before the RSS feed for BtB was killed off, in truth).

But it’s certainly a marker in time for those of us of a certain generation. BtB had not been running for long before I first elbowed my way onto the waggon-trails of blogging, and was certainly one of my first regular follows; at that time I knew Sterling only as some guy who’d co-written a book with William Gibson that I’d never gotten round to reading, and I followed BtB more due to the lingering influence of Wired, which I’d been picking up in dead-tree format on and off since 1990, having been hipped to the existence of this utopian thing called “the internet” while still a callow public schoolboy by, of all the possible vectors of that infection, the band Jesus Jones.

(“Info-freako / there is no limit to what I want to know…” Y’know, I’ve only just realised how much that song now seems terrifyingly prophetic of socnet doomscrolling. But man, Jesus Jones. Heck of a thing to list as fundamentally formative of your life, but there it is.)

Anyway, as an unrepentant fan of Sterling, and as someone who is on the hook to write a chapter about the Chairman for an academic book later in the year, and also as someone who still keeps a blog in the full understanding that it’s an online journal in which I think out loud about stuff for my own satisfaction, please enjoy this recursively self-referential selection of snips from Sterling’s BtB swansong, interleavened with navel-gazing retro-reflections of my own. You’re welcome.

I keep a lot of paper notebooks in my writerly practice. I’m not a diarist, but I’ve been known to write long screeds for an audience of one, meaning myself. That unpaid, unseen writing work has been some critically important writing for me — although I commonly destroy it. You don’t have creative power over words unless you can delete them.

It’s the writerly act of organizing and assembling inchoate thought that seems to helps me. That’s what I did with this blog; if I blogged something for “Beyond the Beyond,” then I had tightened it, I had brightened it. I had summarized it in some medium outside my own head. Posting on the blog was a form of psychic relief, a stream of consciousness that had moved from my eyes to my fingertips; by blogging, I removed things from the fog of vague interest and I oriented them toward possible creative use.

That resonates a lot—though I should be honest enough to admit that my own blogging was at that point an exercise of almost pure self-aggrandizement, and attempt to push myself into the world of words that came with a byline and (so I hoped) a paycheque. As I’ve remarked before, with no small amount of rue (and a degree of guilt), it was that very landrush, by myself and many others, that not only toxified the landscape of blogging beyond any hope of remediation, but which also did so much to drive down the cost of hiring a writer, as we all squabbled over gigs for the bargain price of “exposure”. And I, to be clear, have ended up being one of the lucky ones: I exposed myself enough (and gained enough facility with writing and thinking in public) that I could trade it up and turn it into a ticket into academia.

(Though that was perhaps something of a frypan->fire move; not like things are particularly stable here in the groves, either. But you’d better believe I recognise the significant chunk of luck that I stirred in to alchemise that decade of hustle; while others came out of the blogging landrush far better than I, many came out far worse. And many more never even knew it was happening. It was easy to assume that the blogosphere was coterminous with the world—a foretaste, perhaps, of the walled-in-town-square weltanschauung of the socnets.)

Sterling makes a point further down about how the writing or talking that people will pay you for and the writing or talking that actually goes out into the world and makes a mark rarely overlap significantly, and also notes that both the now-defunct blog and Cheap Truth, both of whose readership was probably far smaller than his book sales, have been far more impactful on those smaller audiences than the books were on theirs. The moral I take away from that observation is that it’s wise to do what interests you, even if there’s no pay in it, even if it eats up the spare time you have around the stuff that actually pays the bills, because it’s the fascination you find in those things that really turns people on—fewer people, turned on more intensely, seems to be what really makes a lasting mark in the long run.

(Perhaps I’m just seeking a retrospective justification for my enduring instinct for taking on tasks that don’t really align as closely with the trajectory of my day-job as they should do… but that is also an instinct that I developed by blogging, and it has served me well so far. For example, one of the papers I wrote during my doctoral studies, and almost entirely unrelated to my thesis in any obvious or substantive way, has already been cited by far more people than will ever read my thesis, and was instrumental in getting me where I am today. It’s also, perhaps not at all coincidentally, a far less compromised piece of work, to which I point people regularly, and with pride; by contrast, when people ask about my thesis, I tend to do pretty much everything short of demanding that they don’t read it.)

A blog evaporates through bit-rot. Yet even creative work which is abandoned and seen by no one is often useful exercise. One explores, one adventures by finding “new ground” that often just isn’t worth it; it’s arid and lunar ground, there’s nothing to farm, but unless you venture beyond and explore, you will never know that. Often, it’s the determined act of writing it down that allows one to realize the true sterility of a silly idea; that’s how the failure gets registered in memory; “oh yes, I tried that, there’s nothing there.”

Or: maybe there is nothing there yet. Or: it may be ‘nothing’ for me in particular, but great for you. “Nothing” comes in many different flavors.

Part of the glory of this swansong piece is that, as Sterling notes, it’s not at all like the material he used to blog. It’s more like a coda to the long succession of speaking gigs he’s done over the years, particularly the SXSW ones: full of sarcasm, sincere musings, shameless self-aggrandizement and self-deprecation sat side-by-side without any sense of contradiction or self-doubt. I’ve been saying for a long time now that I don’t have heroes any more, having learned that a hero is a bit like Chekov’s gun: to put someone on a pedestal is to assure that the time will come when they tumble off it. But I nonetheless remain hugely inspired by Sterling’s confidence in his own instincts, his restless gadfly nomadism; his life’s work seems to be one long Deleuzian line-of-flight in which security was long ago traded for the freedom to follow the thoughts and ideas and opportunities wherever they lead. And he knows it, too, even if he likely wouldn’t put it in those terms:

Even if I couldn’t package the things I knew in any way that any publisher would ever find viable, I simply knew things most people didn’t know. That feat was good in itself. “Real artists ship,” and yes, they do have to ship something, or else they’re not artists. But they don’t have to ship everything they know. That’s because they’re artists, and they’re not a shipping service.

[…]

I knew from the beginning that my weblog would surely cease some day, and I frequently warned readers that “blogs,” the “internet,” desktop computers, browser software and so forth, were all passing phenomena. They were indeed period artifacts, some with the lifespan of hamsters. The content of my blog “rotted” quickly too, since most things I talked about, or linked to, are long gone.

I always understood that, but I hopped right into the ditch anyhow. I appreciated, and I even savored, the risks; I knew that, for a guy who theoretically was a professional novelist, I was spreading myself thin, acting the dilettante, and commonly sticking my nose into scenes and situations that were none of my business. Often, I had little to offer, too, other than some quip and a link. But that was my good fortune; I chose the bohemian downsides, the life of archaic niches and avant-garde clutter; I preferred the dead factory and the palace attic. They were kind to me, for that was my milieu.

There is something of Kafka’s hunger artist to Sterling, too, with all the light and shade that implies—that’s what makes his work interesting to me, but I think it’s also what draws me to his personal character, too. I’ve remarked before that Sterling’s fictional characters are avatars for ideas, a mixture of types and tropes, perhaps closer to the characters of theatre than of literature: they’re loud (even, perhaps particularly, the ones who seem to be quiet), and—crucially—aware of their own status as characters in a fiction, if not always in that knowingly-and-showingly way that we tend to think of as the archetypal signature of the postmodern. I now find myself thinking that the most memorable of Sterling’s characters is Sterling himself, and that all the others are just fragments or facets thereof.

(I really hope someone has scraped and archived BtB for posterity, or even just for the purposes of research… though I suspect it’s maybe not amenable to a tool like wget, as it’s a CMS rather than true filetree? If anyone knows how it might be done and would be willing to tell me how—or perhaps to do the work for a fee—drop me a line, yeah? I know Sterling’s OK with this blog decaying into bit-rot, but I’m enough of a creation of the academy that I hate the thought of it not becoming a part of his “papers”. As a document of a period of history in the not-exactly-a-place that is/was “the internet”, it’s probably peerless.)

  • Sterling, B. (2020, May 17). Farewell to Beyond the Beyond. Retrieved May 18, 2020, from https://www.wired.com/beyond-the-beyond/2020/05/farewell-beyond-beyond/

Albion reimagined, blogosphere rebooted

Paul Watson (ov thee Lazarus Corporation) has been reading vintage anarcho-utopias:

Despite the clumsiness of info-dumps and/or other literary faults, fiction — or any other artform — is far better at describing, and igniting the imagination aboutdifferent potential futures than any dry political tract (or indeed blogpost) filled with jargon, references, and footnotes. That’s why even frothing right-wing libertarians spend more time trying to get people to read Ayn Rand’s terrible novels rather than pushing people to read a formal socio-economic treatise on the subject.

Something wonderful appears to be happening: blogs long dormant are firing furtively into signs of new life in the dusty reaches of my RSS reader, making me very glad I didn’t hoover out all of the much-loved number stations that had seemingly stopped for good. (Joanne McNeil thinks it’s a (qualified) good idea, though Jeffrey Moro has some concerns.)

Sadly not all of them have comments fields (which I guess I can forgive, remembering how that all went down), and others are using third-party horrors like Discus (folks, if Farcebork is a log-in option, you’re spreading Zuckerbot’s cookie-cooties for him); hell knows who’s still got pingbacks running, or has any reliable way of clocking incoming links other than G**gle’s analytics package. But perhaps we can nonetheless find a way not to rebuild the old blogosphere, but build a new one — one wiser to its own weaknesses, more mindful of its strengths. Watson again:

The way to start to change society is to just do it, not to wait for an election (or revolution), nor to wait for someone else to do it. There’ll be no Big Event that signals your permission to start making the world better, and even if there was you wouldn’t be able to afford a ticket anyway, as most of them would have been given to VIPs via corporate hospitality before they went on general sale.

Be the change you want to see, innit?

Blogs were born from sharing stuff you thought worth sharing, be it links or thoughts or whatever else. If you’re reading this and you think there’s a chance that I’m not reading you, or not reading something else you think I might appreciate, drop a comment below (by clicking through to the site from the feed). I want to know what’s on your mind.